Clarke’s clever use of Scot­land’s tal­ent pool is pay­ing div­i­dends

Evening Times - - FAMILY ANNOUNCEME­NTS - Blair New­man

THIS may feel strange to read, but one of Scot­land’s big­gest prob­lems in re­cent years has been hav­ing too many good play­ers in the same po­si­tion.

There are an abun­dance of op­tions in mid­field to choose from, and that has caused headaches in the past. But Steve Clarke is fi­nally find­ing an ef­fec­tive way to utilise them.

Against Cyprus, he se­lected Ryan Jack, Cal­lum McGre­gor, John McGinn and Ryan Christie along­side nat­u­ral winger James For­rest in his mid­field five.

Pre­mier League play­ers such as Kenny McLean, John Fleck and Stu­art Arm­strong were un­used. So, too, was Graeme Shin­nie, who has be­come a key man for English Cham­pi­onship out­fit Derby County of late.

When you also take into ac­count the fact that Manch­ester United reg­u­lar Scott McTom­i­nay isn’t in the squad due to in­jury, it’s easy to un­der­stand why pick­ing a work­able mid­field is so dif­fi­cult.

Clarke wants to get his best play­ers into the line-up, but he also doesn’t want to crow­bar too many square pegs into round holes and sac­ri­fice bal­ance in the process.

In the 2-1 win over Cyprus, he ap­peared to find a solution to the prob­lem with a sys­tem he of­ten de­ployed as Kil­marnock man­ager. Dur­ing his time at Rugby Park he used a 4-4-1-1 with two deep cen­tral mid­field­ers in front of the cen­tre-backs, both full-backs over­lap­ping and al­low­ing the wingers to come in­side, and some­one – be it Yous­souf Mu­lumbu or Greg Ste­wart – play­ing off of a lone striker. This was pre­cisely how Scot­land lined up last week­end.

Jack and McGre­gor took up roles they’re used to play­ing at club level.

McGre­gor played on the left side of a cen­tral mid­field duo, just as he does for Celtic with Scott Brown.

Jack is used to play­ing in a three at Rangers, but his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties here were sim­i­lar as he of­ten dropped deep to re­ceive pos­ses­sion from the cen­tre-backs.

Their deeper po­si­tion­ing gave sup­port to De­clan Gal­lagher and Scott McKenna, helped Scot­land to es­tab­lish con­trol in the build-up and al­lowed full-backs Liam Palmer and Greg Tay­lor to ad­vance down their flanks. This in turn meant Christie and For­rest could drift in­side and play in more cen­tral ar­eas.

Christie’s nat­u­ral in­stinct is to cut in onto his left foot, and this proved dan­ger­ous through­out the first half.

As Cyprus’ cen­tral mid­field­ers strug­gled to get to grips with Jack and McGre­gor’s deep po­si­tion­ing, space opened up be­tween the lines for Christie to ex­ploit by com­bin­ing with team­mates, play­ing through balls be­yond the last line, or get­ting a shot off. He opened the scor­ing for Scot­land, but it was McGinn who sealed the three points with a goal of his own.

The 25-year-old has made an im­pres­sion with his runs from deep for As­ton Villa this sea­son, scor­ing three goals in 12 Pre­mier League out­ings, so Clarke’s de­ci­sion to play him in a more ad­vanced role here made a lot of sense.

The de­ci­sion paid div­i­dends when McGinn at­tacked the box and latched onto a cross from the left-hand side to score on 53 min­utes.

The po­si­tion­ing of Christie and McGinn also helped Scot­land de­fen­sively, as Clarke had them press high early on. Cyprus lined up with a back three, and Christie was re­spon­si­ble for clos­ing down their left cen­tre­back when­ever he re­ceived a side­ways pass.

McGinn cov­ered the deep­est Cypriot mid­fielder, but he also stepped up to press their cen­tre-backs on back passes.

The pair’s ag­gres­sion and in­tel­li­gence had a huge im­pact on the suc­cess of Scot­land’s high press, forc­ing Cyprus into a num­ber of in­ac­cu­rate long balls.

Not only do these mid­field­ers pos­sess qual­ity, but they are also ver­sa­tile.

When Scot­land took the lead for a sec­ond time, Clarke changed shape slightly from a 4-4-1-1 to a 4-5-1, with McGinn drop­ping back into mid­field.

He was still tasked with press­ing the op­po­nent’s cen­tral mid­field­ers, and McGre­gor started to join him in this en­deav­our. Jack then be­came the only real “hold­ing” mid­fielder.

Sub­tly, Clarke is start­ing to tap into the vast re­serves of tal­ent at his dis­posal.

He will be hop­ing for an­other morale-boost­ing win over Kaza­khstan tonight, and his mid­field se­lec­tion could prove piv­otal once again.

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